EAT MY WORDS by Janet Theophano

“Women have conserved a whole world, past and present, in the idiom of food. In their personal manuscripts, in locally distributed community recipe compilations, and in commercially printed cookbooks, women have given history and memory a permanent lodging. The knowledge contained in cookbooks transcends generations…” – Janet Theophano

Janet Theophano is the author of a fascinating book titled “EAT MY WORDS”/Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks they Wrote”.

Published in 2002 by PALGRAVE, a fairly new global publishing imprint of St Martin’s Press, EAT MY WORDS presents a new and entirely different slant on cookbooks.

How it came to be written is just as interesting as the subject matter itself, for Ms. Theophano discovered what so many of us cookbook and recipe collectors ourselves have learned, that there is a lot more to be learned from a manuscript cookbook or a collection of recipes, in a small wooden box, than just recipes.

“Over the past ten years,” Ms. Theophano writes in the Introduction, “I have been researching manuscripts and printed cookery books from the United States and England from the seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and finding myself constantly amazed by the richness of these sources…”

“Few of these materials,” she acknowledges, “are readily available to readers today; some have been kept in families as purely private documents, while others have languished in archives in manuscript form. Even those that were published are no longer widely known and now are generally available only in historical collections…”

Janet Theophano’s purpose in writing this book was first to make these materials known both to scholars and general readers, but also to open a window into the lives of women of distinct classes, cultures, and historical periods, who would otherwise be unknown to us.

What intrigues me most about the writing and publishing of EAT MY WORDS is the author’s description of a spectacular find. So many of us, cookbook collectors, writers, and researchers alike, have experienced similar events that have charted a course for us. I know I have.

Theophano writes, “My interest in cookbooks began with a chance discovery over a decade ago when I was browsing in an antique shop and stumbled across a book of writings. When I opened it, I realized I had discovered a manuscript. At first glance, the handwritten book reminded me of a journal of poetry. When I looked more closely, I discovered that it was a collection of household advice: recipes for Lady Cake and Parker House Rolls, for instance, and folk remedies for flushing the colon and dyeing hair. Inserted between the pages were newspaper clippings of other recipes as well as a poem and a letter dated August 3, 1894, and addressed ‘My Dear’ and signed ‘kiss the babies for me. John.’ The volume also contained a section of clipped recipes pasted onto the pages of an early telephone directory…”

Janet Theophano bought the book for a dollar (be still my heart!) from the shop owner, she says, reluctant to ask for even that much money, which reinforces my belief that many such treasures are thought to be worthless and are thrown away. Ms. Theophano returned home and began to search her new treasure for clues to the identity of the owner.

“I was struck,” she recalls, “not only by this book’s recipes with their titles and ingredients but other information contained within its covers. There were letters, poems, loose recipes on scraps of paper, devotional texts, and a list of books and rhymes…”

Even so, she was unable to learn the name of the author of her treasure, and she wondered how many books like this were anonymous and how many had been discarded, lost, or destroyed because they were considered unimportant. How many were intended for publication? Or were they meant to be kept in families and given as legacies to children? Did women compile the keep these books as symbols of wifely and maternal devotion? Or as a way to give themselves identities apart from those roles? Were these books read? If so, by whom?

And so an idea was born, and since that time, Theophano has searched and bought a few nineteenth and early twentieth century published cookery and household books which in turn led to the writing of EAT MY WORDS.

One of my earliest articles on my original blog that I started in 2009  was about “Helen’s Cookbook” which was the first manuscript cookbook I acquired more than 40 years ago in a dusty, crowded used bookstore on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, for $11.00. I will always remember the price; it was the first time I spent that much money on something that wasn’t actually a published cookbook. Helen’s cookbook was a small-ring bound notebook with leather binding (now nearly worn away) with most of the recipes written in beautiful penmanship with a fountain pen, but also with recipes pasted on pages. The difference between Janet Theophano’s $1.00 find and mine is that I DID discover the name of the author of my manuscript cookbook and a great deal more as well. I wrote about Helen’s cookbook for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange and then on my blog. Writing on Sandy’s Chatter about Helen’s cookbook led to an exchange of emails and letters with a woman in England – who knew something about genealogy and with the bits and pieces of information I had found within the pages of the manuscript cookbook, my new friend Anna identified the woman– now my favorite handwritten cookbook had an identity. But the acquisition of Helen’s cookbook so many years ago led to a new quest for other handwritten cookbooks. And although I have acquired a number of manuscript cookbooks over the years, mostly with the assistance of friends and penpals, I have discovered that they are really hard to find and as a result, I began searching for old recipe boxes—the ones that contain recipes from someone else’s collection. It can also be difficult finding recipe boxes with the contents intact- I think most dealers considered the contents of the boxes worthless and that no one would be interested in them so the recipe cards and clippings were often thrown away. [as a note of interest – I discovered, a few years ago, that filled recipe boxes have become a hot item on Ebay.]

But I digress, for this is Janet Theophano’s story, not mine – but I wanted to share with you what excited and thrilled me with the publishing of EAT MY WORDS. Some one scholarly has finally recognized what so many of us have appreciated for a long time.

At the time my original article was written for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, Janet Theophano was Associated Director of the College of General studies and adjunct faculty member in the Graduate Program In Folklore and Folklife and in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She was, I think, just the person to write EAT MY WORDS.

“First,” she writes, “I want to recapture some of these women’s previously undiscovered stories and the sensibilities of women whose lives would otherwise remain obscure—for some of the women who kept these books were only partially literate—and to demonstrate the richness and complexity of their experiences…” She says she also wanted to expand the significance we usually ascribe   to cookbooks by considering them as worthy objects of serious and textual analysis. And, as a folklorist training in an appreciation of aesthetic forms, she looks for the continuities in cookbooks as well as the transformations.

“Consequently,” she explains, “Women’s cookbooks can be maps of the social and cultural worlds they inhabit…”

The chapters within the pages of EAT MY WORDS cover a lot of ground, with titles such as “Cookbooks as Communities” and “Cookbooks as Autobiography”. There are numerous fascinating illustrations, including a copy of a letter found in a nineteenth century manuscript receipt book, which I think you will also find interesting. Readers who are also interested in bibliographies will be delighted with the one found in EAT MY WORDS.

The author writes, “There is much to be learned from reading a cookbook besides how to prepare food…for me, leafing through a cookbook is like peering through a kitchen window. The cookbook, like the diary and the journal, evokes a universe inhabited by women…the stories cookbooks tell are about life and its sustenance in different eras and in different places, they    are about enjoyment and change the contentment and longings of lives lived in worlds remote from our own.” (From the Introduction to EAT MY WORDS).

EAT MY WORDS by Janet Theophano is from PALGRAVE publishers. The original review for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange was in 2002.   You can find a copy of for $15.65, new or starting at $3.48 for a pre-owned or new copies with 56 copies from which to choose.

Happy Cookbook collecting –while this isn’t a cookbook per se, it has much to offer to cookbook collectors.


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